Charles Vanel and Yves Montand in The Wages of Fear
Think you know what suspense filmmaking is? Not until you’ve seen Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur, 1953), still, after more than sixty years, the film to beat for white knuckle suspense. Indeed, it’s one of the indispensable works of the cinema, and if you haven’t seen it — well, you should stop reading this and get the DVD right away.
Henri-Georges Clouzot was an acerbic, brutal filmmaker; during the Nazi occupation of France, while some of his colleagues were making positive, upbeat films that urged both resistance and reassurance, Clouzot was making Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943), about poison pen letters in a small French village, a film seemingly designed to give aid and comfort to the enemy. After the war, Clouzot was banned from filmmaking until 1947, but soon after re-entered the industry, and in 1952, shot Le Salaire de la peur, which remains — along with Les Diaboliques (1955) — his signature film.
In a South American hellhole of literally indescribable filth and squalor, Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli) and Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) sweat it out day after day, penniless, willing to do almost anything to get a ticket home to France. But there’s no work, no hope, no nothing — you can practically smell the stench of the place emanating from the screen.
Finally, a desperate “out” emerges. The SOC Oil Company has an oil well fire on its hands deep in the jungle, and puts out a call to hire four drivers to haul huge shipments of highly unstable, deteriorating nitroglycerine in trucks with lousy brakes and no suspension over treacherous mountain roads — if one of the trucks gets through, the company will have enough explosives to cap the well. If any of the drivers make it, they get a trip back to Paris. All four men compete for — and get — the job.
The trucks are completely unsafe, the nitroglycerine is so unstable that even the slightest shock will set it off, and the roads offer one obstacle after another. The film takes about 40 minutes to set up the situation, but then for the rest of the 147 minute ride, we follow the trucks on their desperate voyage through the jungle, every nerve-wracking step of the way.
When Jean Cocteau saw The Wages of Fear, he immediately recognized it for the masterpiece it was, and as President that year of the jury at Cannes, saw to it that the film won the Grand Prize of the Festival in 1953– despite the surprising opposition of Fritz Lang, also on the jury, who, if you ask me, was simply jealous (see my essay on Cocteau’s role in this, “How Will I Get My Opium?,” in the book Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil, and Slime on Screen for more detail).
It should be noted that The Wages of Fear was cut by about 15 minutes after the win at Cannes for US distribution, to remove what were perceived as “anti-American” sentiments — and it’s true; Clouzot’s absolute fatalism and complete misanthropy demonstrates that he had little faith in anyone or anything — but the current Criterion release thankfully offers the original, complete film.
All in all, The Wages of Fear is nearly flawless filmmaking; a remake by William Friedkin, Sorcerer (1977), only demonstrated just how good the original film was, and remains; Clouzot’s career was relatively short, but in this film, he made one of the lasting masterpieces of the cinema.